The lineman life suits Duke Energy’s Toby Garner Intelligent Utility

04/18/2016

I’m writing this piece on National Lineman Appreciation Day---well, sort of. 

While most recognize April 18 as National Lineman Appreciation Day, America’s electric cooperatives celebrate the event on the second Monday in April. (That’s April 11 this year.)

So, I’m writing about a lineman on one National Lineman Appreciation Day in an attempt to get the story out there by another National Lineman Appreciate Day.

But the bottom line is this: Whether you celebrate with the co-ops, with the national calendar date or on the day that lineman helped your power come back on, there is no doubt that linemen should be celebrated—nor is there any doubt that every lineman has a wealth of great stories to tell. 

We’ve told some great lineman stories in past years, and this year we chatted with Toby Garner, who joined Duke Energy when it was Duke Power back in 1970 and is still a company employee based in Durham, NC. 

Garner got the idea for a lineman gig through both inspiration and necessity.

“My next door neighbor’s daughter was married to a man who read meters for Duke Power,” he said. “And, I had just graduated, and, really, we were too poor to send me to college. I was working for the brickyard at the time. [The neighbor’s son-in-law] encouraged me to try to get a job at Duke Power. After taking a test, I got a call to meet the manager and I was hired the next day. So it was pretty quick!”

And, despite that quick decision, it stuck. 

“I believe it was God’s intention,” he added. “I was at Duke Power for nine months before Uncle Sam had plans for me. I joined the Air Force for four years. I wanted to go into teaching or coaching afterward, but I knew in the back of my mind that I still had my job at Duke Power if I wanted it.  I ended up back here which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I started instructing linemen here. And I still do it today.”

Garner noted that the job is still, after all these years, lots of fun (and that, too, may be a secret to his long-term career choice). And that fun may be tied to the teaching, which Garner admits has become a favorite part of the job since he started adding in that instructional element back in the 1990s at the Lake Wylie training center. 

He said, “I was reluctant at first and didn’t want to go. I tried to do the best I could and found myself enjoying it.” And, apparently, he was good at it since the training program called him back in to do more training. They have a number of classes, including a “new hire school” to helps lineman craft a great first impression. Garner reiterated that he really loves teaching. 

Another favorite part of the job: the people factor. 

“I can’t go anywhere on the Duke Energy Carolina system where I don’t know somebody,” Garner added. “Or I’ll go on a storm trip to another area and someone will yell, ‘Hey Toby! You taught me years ago.’ This has been the most rewarding.”

When I asked what he would like his own CEO (and other utility CEOs) to understand about his job, his response was knowledge-based, as a good teacher’s should be.

“If you’re the CEO of a company, you should make it your business to understand every aspect of what happens in your company. I know Lynn Good’s been here before. Obviously we have a CEO who’s making that effort,” he said.

As for what customers should know about his job, he wished for better knowledge of storm situations and the basics of how electricity works—its imperatives, needs and the science behind it all.  

“Most people don’t understand the restoration process when there’s a catastrophic storm with thousands of people out. I’d like for them to understand that electricity starts at a source, and it’s like running water. It’s got to run its course. You can’t jump from point A to point D. You can’t get power back on until you get everything behind it back on. I also want people to understand that we get major customers, like hospitals, back on first. We see this when we’re out in the field working after storms,” he said.

Garner also noted, however, that, despite those knowledge gaps, the proudest moment of his gig is when he restores someone. (In fact, he admitted that’s probably true for every lineman.)

“During a storm when people have been out for a long time, you see how grateful they are to get the power back on. That makes you feel pretty good, especially that you’ve done this for elderly people. That brings happiness and makes you understand why you’re here,” he said. “This can also happen on the simplest levels of everyday work. Just like yesterday, a tree fell and did a lot of damage. When you get the lights back on, people will stick their heads out of the door and say thank you. That’s gratifying, too.”

So, if you, your neighbor or your neighbor’s son-in-law may be thinking about how to get that gratifying gratitude yourself, Garner wants you to really think about it and know you want this job. 

“A lot of the aspects of this job aren’t natural, like climbing a pole, but it’s something you’ve got to do. The public thinks our job is dangerous, but linemen don’t think that. Our job is hazardous, and we know the hazards. But we don’t think of it as dangerous. It’s my job to make electricity do what I want it to do. I’m supposed to handle it… not it handle me.”

And, obviously, after so many years, Garner has definitely got a handle on it.